Vietnam. For a 20-something American the name signifies a war more than a place. I have seen the movies, but have little understanding of the place and conflict. I know we went due to the Domino Theory, but I never grasped how a theory became a war. I know we fought and lost.
I headed off to Vietnam without doing any research. It was only recently that I had learned where Vietnam was on a map. I heard Vietnam was a fast developing country with factories producing for the West. It sounded like many places I had gone, but on arrival it gave me some shock and awe.
When I arrived from Singapore I was surprised by how large, clean and new the airport was. It could have been in any developed country and was nicer than most American airports. The change was especially stark coming from Singapore’s Budget Terminal which was like the sanatorium in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The only airport hassle was picking up my Vietnam Visa on Arrival from a bureaucratic regime that was holding up 30+ people. Luckily, my visa processed fastest of anyone on my plane and faster than most on a plane that had arrived earlier. After gathering myself and belongings, I exited the airport expecting a crush of touts, taxi services and unsavory individuals that hound tourists in many airports. As I exited I was surprised by the calm and order.
Outside I met a Finnish man who was being hassled by a taxi tout, in hushed tones only good English speakers could comprehend we surmised that we were heading to the same area. I told him I wanted to take the bus and he agreed. The taxi tout told us the last bus had left as service ceased at 6pm. It was 5:55pm. We haggled to an agreeable price and the tout told us to wait in the parking lot. Realizing he may not be allowed to fetch passengers at the door, we obliged and waited. Minutes passed and the tout was nowhere to be seen. Then the bus arrived. With no taxi in sight we boarded the bus which was 94% cheaper than the taxi would have been.
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Erica and Matt Chua: Vietnam on Arrival
This was our second Great Walk in New Zealand. Click here to read about the Milford Track, New Zealand’s most famous hike.
Inscribed on almost every “World’s Best” hikes list is the Routeburn Track in New Zealand. All too often the reality fails to meet the hyped expectations, but Routeburn does not disappoint. From start to finish the trail wow’s you so much that the work of hiking is forgotten.
The sun rising outside the Routeburn Falls Hut, a fine start to our final day on the track. This is a view hikers traveling in the traditional, Queenstown to Te Anau, direction are given on their first day.
Having completed the Milford Track just days earlier we chose to hike in the opposite direction of most, starting from Te Anau and hiking towards the comforts of Queenstown, the de facto capital of New Zealand tourism. We had been discouraged by the weather report in the Department of Conservation office: freezing temperatures and snow at the level of the campsites.
Traveling with $25 warm-weather sleeping bags and yet to rent a tent, news of snow was unwelcome. Given our experiences with rental tents we made the expensive decision to change from camping to staying in hut dormitories. Even though the huts were listed as booked we learned that there are a couple extra beds always available for a difference of $36 NZD ($28 USD) per person ($54 NZD for huts versus $18 NZD to camp in high season). Being budget travelers as we are, we lamented the cost, but decided that if greeted by rain, snow and freezing temperatures, this was the right move.
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Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Routeburn Track
What makes a “Great Walk”? This question haunted me after reserving our spots on the Milford Track. Reputedly one of the world’s best hikes, reservations are required months in advice at the cost of almost $250 USD per person for the four day, three night, hike. What kind of public park hike requires you to carry all your stuff, cook your own food,and costs over $50 a day? After a year of traveling on less, paying that much to hike uphill seemed absurd. That said, having made the payment, we’d soon find out how great this Great Walk is.
After a beautiful boat ride to the trailhead the first day is lovably short hike through moss-covered forests.
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Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Milford Track
When you hear “Japanese fashion”, what do you think? Middle-age men wearing Disney World hats, Las Vegas t-shirts and enormous cameras? Or do you think the Harajuku women, dressed up like dolls, anime characters, and the occasional horse head? Are their fashion choices representing craziness or self-expression in a repressive society? Read our takes then have your say in the comments below.
Fashion in Japan is interesting. “Interesting” used in a Minnesota-nice sort of way, as in, “it’s not my thing, I’m not sure about it, actually it makes me a little uncomfortable, but I can’t say that because…well I’m a Minnesotan.” I’ve been told that in other parts of the country people would say something like, “God bless their heart, I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!” I think many of the fashions are absolutely crazy, the pedophile soliciting schoolgirl outfits, the dancing Elvises, the anime characters!?! I don’t get it.
I don’t understand why people want to walk down the street and have people gawking at them. I don’t get why people want to become a tourist attraction. I really can’t comprehend why some of them get annoyed that tourists take photos of them, after all, they are the ones drawing the attention to themselves with their choices of clothing. More over, how long does it take these people to get all done up like this? Caking on the layers of makeup, doing up their hair, buying all the clothes, putting themselves together the way you would a Barbie Doll. The time, effort, cost and ogling makes the whole production seem unrewarding.
Are those shoes comfortable? Whatever you used to make your face look like that…is it toxic? What if it doesn’t go back to “normal”? Do you even care? What do you want to be? What feeling does it give you to do yourself up like this? Why, why, why? Maybe I have too many question, maybe I’m too cerebral for fashion, maybe it’s me that’s crazy, not them, but I’m pretty certain it’s them.
There is one thing I do like in Japanese and in broader Asian fashion: super short mini skirts. If wacky english worded slogans on shirts, strange makeup combinations, or odd styles are what we have to accept to get super short shorts on a daily basis then I could be converted…
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Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Japanese Fashion
Most of the year being away from home is just fine. Daily life doesn’t give us much to miss, but the holidays are a different story. Do we want to be at an ugly sweater party? Yeah, you betcha! Do we want to be feasting on unhealthy food just because it’s a holiday? Of course! Here are the key things about the holidays we miss.
December is a deceptively good month at home. The fun of the holidays outweighs the fact that in Minnesota the temperature drops below freezing; a mark it won’t rise above until sometime in May. While the air outside becomes frosty, inside it’s a different story, the warmth of people abounds. Everywhere becomes festive, downtown Minneapolis hosts a nightly parade, stores that seem barren in the summer are wrapped in decorations, and people open their homes to share great food, catch up, and drink a little too much eggnog. Overall, December is a month that I wish were longer.
Ever seen The Hangover? At the end they find a digital camera with photos of the night before that show scenes that are unbelievable for even those that were there. Our friend’s holiday party is like that. Part of you wishes there were no digital cameras and facebook, but you also realize that’s a big part of the fun. The party doesn’t really celebrate the holidays, rather it uses the holidays as a reason to party, in costume. This year’s theme, Punk Rock Christmas, will celebrate the decade we were born in, but too young to rock mohawks and leather jackets without our parents’ agreeing to pay for them. Being the season of giving, there is a gift exchange where you can expect to walkaway with household essentials such as stuffed bobcats and profane inflatable objects. This is one holiday party that is a shame to miss.
Stuffed bobcat!? You know you want one and the gift exchange is a great place to get it.
A close second to missing Punk Rock Christmas is being able to indulge in eating without shame. The holidays are a time when it’s seemingly OK to catch up with family while holding a plate that only contains prime rib, lamb, and turkey.Sure, there are plenty of other things I could put on my plate, some carbs for example, but why? Spending time with loved ones and a plate of meat is what makes December different from Thanksgiving when people will plop sweet potatoes onto your plate against your will. The holidays are all about food, family and friends, which makes December a great month.
I have always had a white Christmas, being from Minnesota having snow on the ground is a sign that the holidays are just around the corner. While we have chased summer weather around the world, I miss the snow that tells me it’s time for holiday parties, ice sculptures and long standing family traditions. Sure I wish I could attend friend’s ugly sweater parties and play secret santa, but what I miss most is our traditional Christmas Eve meal and our eclectic Christmas Day gathering of friends and family.
My plate of food with Swedish meatballs, Swedish sausage, lefse and a tiny bit of obligatory lutefisk.
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Erica and Matt Chua: He Said-She Said: Missing the Holidays
Every year millions of tourists flock to Agra to see the white marble, architectural marvel that is the Taj Mahal. Few leave disappointed. To enjoy the magic of the Taj give yourself a few days to truly take in this legacy of the Mughal empire. Seeing the domed mausoleum from several different vantage points will leave you awe-inspired and offer you the best opportunity for a prized photo.
The Taj was completed in 1653 after 22 years of construction and some 20,000 workers contributing their efforts including specialists from as far away as Europe. It is widely thought to be the most beautiful building in the world. Shah Jahan built it as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz whom died giving birth to their 14th child. Not long after it’s completion Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son and imprisoned in Agra Fort. He spent the rest of his days only able to admire the Taj from a distance until he was entombed in his own creation next to Mumtaz in 1666.
Unlike Shah Jahan, you are not restricted to viewing the Taj from just one vantage point. Being that likely your number one reason for paying a visit to Agra is to see the Taj, take time to find your favorite vista. The four identical faces of the Taj are an exercise in architectural symmetry, yet the eye seems to notice different things from various angles. Below are my three favorite views, each offering a unique perspective and gave me a new appreciation for this awe-inspiring memorial.
North Bank of the Yamuna River
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Erica and Matt Chua: Agra’s #1 Attraction
There are few situations more overwhelming than finding yourself in one of India’s largest cities. The sensory assault soon crescendos into an all out war on your senses with the cacophony of noises and smells fighting for your attention. The problem is these aren’t pleasant sounds and smells, constant honking, yelling along with the stench of garbage urine and body odor. So, what can I say to convince you that visiting any of these cities would be an enjoyable experience. Well, along with staggering statistics these cities also boast some of the best dining, sights and experiences India has to offer.
Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai
MUMBAI 20.5 million
Mumbai has something for everyone with the world’s most prolific movie industry, one of Asia’s largest slums, the most expensive residence ever built and more artists and servants than L.A. India’s most modern metropolis is a 24 hour party or the best place to find a good book and a proper cup of coffee- you decide. We’ve talked to travelers that couldn’t get out of there fast enough, but we could have stayed and eaten the cupcakes at Theobroma forever. It’s a city where dreams are born and dreamers dwell, so come and get inspired!
When to Go: October to February
Don’t Miss: Chowpatty Beach (FREE), Malabar Hill (FREE, a round trip cab ride from Colaba is about $4) , Bollywood (If you’re an extra they pay you!), Restaurants of Colaba (a nice dinner for two $20-$100 without wine), Dharavi slum (tour through Reality Tours is $10 per person), Dhobi Ghat laundry area (FREE, a round trip cab ride from Colaba is about $4)
Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi
DELHI 17 million
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Erica and Matt Chua: India’s Big City Life
Before we had even unpacked our bags in our sixth floor room in Can Tho there was a knock at the door. Upon opening the door in came a short, fiery Vietnamese woman that we could tell wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer before we could even figure out what she was selling. She squatted down and started pulling out photos, maps, a notebook and testimonials from previous customers. She jumped right into her sales pitch for her boat tours on the Mekong Delta for “good price.” Her English was some of the best we had heard in Vietnam and she was talking a mile a minute while writing down pricing in her notebook to show us. $20 for a half day private tour and $40 for a full day private tour down the Mekong Delta. Before we even had time to respond to anything she had presented she was shoving testimonials written in every language at us, clearly proud of all her happy customers.
Her aggressive sales pitch and excellent English landed us on a small boat at 5:30 am the next morning in the Mekong Delta. Breakfast was included, coffee too, as well as a driver and English speaking guide. Our guide was an affable older gentleman who had fought in the South Vietnamese Military alongside the Americans in the Vietnam War, which is where he picked up his English. They were a great pair for giving us a glimpse into life on the Delta and for getting plastic bags out of the motor so that the tour could continue.
The first stop was Cai Rung floating market, the largest in the Mekong Delta. Most of the trading, selling and buying happens between 6-8 am, so we were right on time. Next we headed to a small rice paper making operation, which also seemed to be raising pigs and pythons. With all the rice noodles we had been eating we didn’t know how they were made, so this stop was of particular interest as they made rice paper that was then made into noodles.
We continued down the Delta observing how people lived along the rivers and watching as new bridges were being built and barge traffic made it’s way towards Saigon. Much of the Mekong Delta looks the same, but we were kept entertained as our driver made us bouquets of flowers, grasshoppers and jewelry out of coconut palm leaves. Our guide also made us some pineapple lollipops and attempted to teach us Vietnamese.
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Erica and Matt Chua: Ms. Ha’s School of Marketing
It’s hard to avoid expectations, they are just a given in life. For example When you go to dinner you expect to have a menu with multiple items to choose from, when you book a taxi you expect them to take you to your destination and when you pay a high fee for something your expectations go up. While traveling has taught me to temper my expectations, I couldn’t help but have high expectations when I paid $145 NZ dollars ($120 USD) for a whale watching tour. In fact if you don’t see a whale you get your money back. How could I go wrong?
I saw my whale and the tour was a success, with a perfect whale tail photo to show for it. However, the tour is one that I would have a hard time recommending. I was giddy about the prospects of seeing one of the world’s largest mammals in it’s natural habitat, but a little hesitant about the large price tag. So, I headed to the whale watch headquarters in hopes of encountering an over-zeoulous salesperson to give me the pitch about how nothing can compare to seeing a sperm whale in Kaikoura.
Instead when I walked in no one greeted me and upon enquiring about their whale watch tours I was simply given the times they had available the next day. Thinking maybe I had to show a little enthusiasm to get them pumped up I asked which tour was the best to spot a whale on. The woman behind the counter answered flatly, it’s really about luck. Okay, I said, clearly hoping for more from her to which she responded you can book now without putting any money down.
I booked a spot on their first available tour in the morning and left with lowered expectations. Lucky for me we were couchsurfing
with an expert on sperm whales. Our host, Manuel was getting his PhD in sperm whale behavior and offered all the encouragement I needed to get pumped up about my whale watch tour in the morning. Not only was this one of the best places to spot the huge mammals he told me, but from my pictures he would be able to tell me which whale I saw since he had been studying them for years.
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Erica and Matt Chua: In Search of a White Tail
I never thought I would write about the top five dances to see around the world, but these performances moved me. They were not merely entertaining they were mind blowing. From the unbelievable Arirang Games in North Korea, which is the largest choreographed dance in the world to the spiritual ritual dance in northern India to help instruct Buddhists through the stages of death these five dances will give you a whole new perspective on each of the countries you watch them in. They may even change your life and your transition into the afterlife.
1. The Arirang Games
Pyongyang, North Korea
Any attempt to explain the annual Arirang Games in North Korea are lost on anyone who has not witnessed the incredible show for themselves. The “Mass Games” as they are also called enlist over 100,000 people to honor their “Eternal Leader” Kim Il-Sung on his birthday with the largest choreographed show on earth. With performers practicing their parts from the early age of five and dancing as a part of the collective, every part of the show represents the communist way of life. It is an incredible spectacle and one you have to see to believe.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tango may quite possibly be one of the sexiest dances in the world, making it a must-see dance, and there is no place it is more ubiquitous than Buenos Aires. The famous tango enclave of La Boca in Argentina’s capital has a cafe on every corner featuring a sequen-clad couple performing for tourists. No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without seeing live tango, it’s just a matter of deciding where to watch it.
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Erica and Matt Chua: World’s Top 5 Dance Performances